One of the world’s foremost experts on avian auditory systems, Masakazu Konishi has managed to combine intellectual drive, an insatiable curiosity and a profound love of animals to build a scientific career spanning continents, cultures and generations.
Born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1933, he recalls trips to the zoo with his parents where he “would beg them to wait at the exit gate” until he finished a second round of viewing the animals. His early dream was to become a zookeeper.
Konishi recounts the words of William Clark, a visiting American professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo: “Boys, be ambitious.” Clark’s time in Japan was brief, but his words echoed all the way down to a grade school textbook, became a motto for Konishi’s high school principal, and helped inspire the young Konishi to study for the entrance exams at Hokkaido University despite his parents’ strained finances. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree there in 1956 and his masters degree in 1958.
Two teachers at Hokkaido — the late Professor Mitsuo Tamashige and the late Professor Shoichi Sakagami — were important influences on the direction of his studies, as was the book The Study of Instinct by N. Tinbergen. “I read the book from cover to cover,” he said. “I thought that this was the field for me. One gets paid and praised for fooling animals with dummies. I was already doing it as a child.” One of his first studies involved the reaction of reed warblers to tape recordings of their own songs.
Thinking he might pursue graduate courses outside Japan, Konishi prepared. “I diligently went to English conversation classes at the American Cultural Center and an Episcopal church in Sapporo. I also made a few English speaking friends including ministers, diplomats, and U.S. army intelligence officers.” He was contemplating going to England, but there were more fellowships available at U.S. institutions, and he ended up at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in 1963.
On the ship crossing to the U.S., he and a group of fellow Japanese students met a contingent of about 30 American high school students returning from a three-month stay in Japan. “We mixed very well with them,” each group practicing its foreign language skills with the other. Someone suggested the young Konishi westernize his first name; he chose “Mark” because of the shared letters with Masakazu and has continued to use it.
At the University of California, Berkeley, he studied with Professor Peter Marler, “a new ethologist (who) just opened a laboratory” and “was already known for his study of bird vocalizations.” Konishi’s subsequent work with the zebra finch and other songbirds was significant in establishing the link between sound, memory and vocalization.
As a postdoctoral fellow he studied at the University of Tübingen, Germany; he then studied neurophysiology at the Max-Planck-Institut, Munich. He taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and at Princeton University before moving, in 1974, to the California Institute of Technology, where he continues to work. He has been the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) since 1980.
While still at Princeton, “Someone gave me three baby owls.” He said two survived to maturity and fortunately they were a male and a female. He found the birds easy to work with and by the time he got to Caltech, he brought 21 owls with him.
He worked first with Jack Pettigrew on the visual system of the owl and then on the auditory system. “Very quickly I learned they could localize a sound,” Konishi said. “Roger Payne, who has been active in whale conservation in recent years, was the first to describe auditory localization of prey by barn owls. I confirmed it and proceeded to find how the owl’s brain localizes the sounds.”
Konishi thought the owl might have some sort of table or map in its brain so it could read the location of sound without performing step by step computations. When Eric Knudsen joined his lab, they set out to “find” the map. “A map was not at all expected,” he said, recalling a well respected scientific paper of the day in which a colleague argued against it. “Fortunately Eric and I didn’t know of the paper and didn’t read it, because his argument was very convincing” and might have dissuaded them from their experiments.
Konishi’s outstanding achievements both with the barn owl and bird song have led to many awards, including the Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience, McGovern Institute, MIT; the International Prize for Biology, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; Elliot Coues Award, American Ornithologists’ Union; Gerard Prize, the Society for Neuroscience; Karl Spencer Lashely Award, the American Philosophical Society; the Lewis S. Rosensteil Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science, Brandeis University; and the Kresge/Mirmelstein Award for Excellence in Auditory Research, Kresge Hearing Research Laboratory, Louisiana State University.
He continues to research, teach, publish and to lecture throughout the world.
His time away from work is shared with his pets. “I like dogs. I always have dogs,” he said. Currently he has three. He and a group of friends also own a flock of sheep and he has been working with one of his dogs, a Border Collie, teaching it to herd sheep.